RED BLUFF, Calif. — Three straight years of dry conditions don’t appear to be stifling the growth of California’s walnut farms, at least yet.
The Golden State’s 280,000 bearing acres of walnuts during the most recent harvest was up from 270,000 acres in 2012, continuing an annual climb from the 216,000 acres that bore nuts in 2006, according to a government report.
California’s overall walnut acreage was estimated at 325,000 acres, up 8 percent from 2012, according to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service office in Sacramento.
The growth comes even as growers have had to manage orchards with limited water supplies, getting by with such tools as drip irrigation and pressure chambers to determine a tree’s water need.
“What we have done is try to cut back our water use,” said Red Bluff grower Tyler Christensen, who faces a possible curtailment of his water right from a nearby creek. He said his family’s 700 acres of irrigated pasture is in the most danger of losing water.
“Our orchards are all really well supplied,” he said.
The estimate comes amid reports that some growers have taken out trees because of a lack of water, or targeted their limited water allocations to their most lucrative crops, including walnuts. The survey reflects about 4,300 acres of tree removals during the past two years, NASS reported.
Dennis Balint, the California Walnut Commission’s chief executive officer, suggested water shortages may hit other crops harder than walnuts, a majority of which are grown in the northern part of the state.
“But it remains to be seen,” he cautioned.
He has said it may be next season before the drought’s impacts start to be felt in the walnut industry, since trees will be setting the buds for next year’s crop immediately after harvest this fall and many of those trees will already be stressed.
Most growers in recent years have installed drip irrigation, which enables them to water lands they wouldn’t have tried to flood irrigate or use sprinklers on. University of California advisors have been encouraging growers to invest in such testing equipment as pressure bombs, which are sort of like blood pressure tests for trees, to determine a tree’s water needs.
Another factor in the increasing walnut acreage, UC advisors have said, is that plum orchards have been scaled back in recent years as a result of a loss of global market share.
With some nurseries taking back orders of two years or longer, the planting of new walnut trees figures to continue. Christensen, who’s doubled the size of his walnut orchard in recent years, says he plans to plant more next spring.
“We have some open ground, and walnut prices are really looking good right now,” he said. He also wants to plant more plums for prunes, although “It’s a matter of … figuring out where we want to do it,” he said.
Walnuts and prunes take about the same amount of watering, he said.
NASS’ acreage report was based on a survey of about 5,200 walnut growers. Of the acreage reported, Chandler continued to be the leading variety with 91,185 bearing acres, followed by Hartley with 34,948 bearing acres, according to the agency.
2013 California Walnut Acreage Report: http://www.nass.usda.gov/Statistics_by_State/California/Publications/Fruits_and_Nuts/2014walac.pdf